COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Reptiles are Thomas Cobb's passion.
His collection of 29 exotic boa constrictors is better than what can be found in many zoos. He has spent more than two decades amassing his private collection, and in the past year alone has spent about $100,000 adding to it, buying the highest quality cages available and constructing a special room in his basement just for the snakes.
By all accounts, Cobb's snakes receive top-notch care.
But now, Cottonwood Heights has given him one week to get all but one of them out of his house.
"It's caused me to cry five times today. The best analogy is going to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and taking the steering wheel from his (car): 'Sorry, you can't drive anymore.' You don't take someone's passion when they're doing it right. You don't go to Arnold Palmer and bust his best club. You don't go to a surgeon and take his scalpel and stereoscope. I do it right, and it's very unfair," he said.
"It's almost like I'm being made an example, which is unfair because I'm the one guy doing it right."
The problem for Cobb, 29, started a week ago when he was cleaning a new plastic tub in his front yard because he didn't want the snake he was going to put into it to collect any toxins. A neighbor saw what was happening and out of concern called police. Cobb, who moved into his new home just 10 months ago, said Friday he still did not know which neighbor called police on him.
"It dumbfounded me, honestly," he said.
Cottonwood Heights Police Sgt. Dan Bartlett said when officers arrived at the house, near 7000 South and 2900 East, they found 14 5-foot boas and 15 4-foot boas. Cobb, however, said his largest snake is actually about 7 feet long. Police also found about 80 rats for feeding the snakes.
Police determined that despite the neighbor's concern, Cobb's basement setup was very clean and the snakes were cared for well. The problem, however, was that Cobb does not have an exotic pet permit. And city ordinance allows for just one snake.
Cobb said not obtaining a permit was simply an oversight. He didn't know he was required to have one. He was issued a class C misdemeanor ticket for failing to have a license.
"My perfectly clean record is ruined," he said.
Cobb conceded that ignorance isn't an excuse for not getting a permit. And the officers who were at his house were more inquisitive about his collection than scolding, he said. Nevertheless, they have given him a one-week deadline.
"They gave me a week to relocate the animals. I have no location to take them to. The room was purposely built to house these guys in the best ambient conditions possible for their health. I have nowhere else I can take them. I don't have another property. I don't have another house. I don't have a warehouse. These were a private collection in my private residence in a room specifically built for these animals.
"Who am I to argue law? I have to do what they say. I don't know how I'm going to do it," said Cobb, who admitted he will likely be retaining an attorney and the issue could end up in court.
Cobb, who grew up in Sandy and caught snakes as a boy near the mouths of the Cottonwood canyons, has been collecting reptiles as long as he can remember. He has an undergraduate college degree in biochemistry with an emphasis on genetics and mutation. The snakes that he owns all have special genetic mutations.
Cobb doesn't breed snakes, but rather he purchases them for his collection. Each snake costs about $12,000.
"These are not your run-of-the-mill, go to a pet store, these are the best of the best," he said.
He has spent about $30,000 in cages. He keeps the snakes in a 300-square-foot room in his basement built just for them. It is impossible for them to escape, he said.
"Twenty-nine snakes is a lot to a lot of people, but so is six dogs. It's all subjective. Just because one person can't handle it, I've proven I can," he said while wiping back tears.
Cobb called what was happening to him "unfair," and wasn't sure what he was going to do with his reptiles.
"It's my entire passion, it's my hobby. It's where I go when I have the craziest day at work to breathe. It's pulling the ventilator off of someone you love. It's my dream ever since I was a kid."